Given that the world is so large and beautiful, why visit the same old places if it’s possible to venture off the beaten path and explore a new destination? It was this thought that led me to book tickets to Riga, the beautiful and little-known capital of Latvia - and boy, am I glad that I did. Riga was everything that I had imagined, and then some more, surprising me time and time again. Beaches and bars - is how I would sum up my time in Riga and Latvia. Here are the highlights of my trip and reasons why it makes a great destination for anyone looking for an offbeat experience:
House of the Blackheads: If you were a German merchant and single in the Middle ages, you’d have a room here at the House of the Blackheads. This house was built in 1334 for upper class merchants and was used as a venue for meetings and banquets. The House of the Blackheads is to Riga what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, so make sure to put it at the top of your list. This is the most iconic building in all of Riga and is a definite must visit - the biggest attraction in Riga (or shall I say Latvia?). The building’s characteristic architecture is worth admiring. There is a tourist office on the ground floor which is a great place to send postcards to family and friends. Excitingly, the sheer absence of tourists makes it really easy to get amazing pictures in front of the building (even through the day) without being photobombed.
Wander about the Old Town: Riga’s Old Town is quintessentially European, minus the hordes of tourists (yay!) so it feels extremely cosy. There is immense variety in the architecture, which goes from from quaint wooden buildings to art nouveau, from Modernism to Gothic. It’s a different landscape and colourful depending on which part of town you walk though! The fun part is that the city’s architecture has a lovely sense of humour too (and doesnæt take itself too seriously!) so look out for the charming building with a cat perched on its roof.
Look out for The Three Brothers – almost impossible to photograph, but pretty nonetheless. Together, the houses form the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. The white house is from the 15th century, the yellow is from 16th and the green from the 17th century.
Drink the local drink, Black Balsam: Black Balsam is an herbal elixir made from pure vodka and it’s used in traditional medicine and sold in every tavern in town. Fun fact: it’s kind of a must when you’re in Riga. Even the locals say that ‘if you haven’t tasted it, you haven't been in Riga!’ If you’re not up for the drink, you can even try Black Balsam coffee in most self respecting coffee shops in Riga.
Do a daytrip to Jurmala: We took a half-day trip to Jurmala, located a short thirty minute train ride away from Riga (trains depart frequently from the Central Station, you can buy tickets online). Jurmala is a one-time legendary beach resort, which was a Soviet-era favourite. Today, it’s still as lovely but perhaps less popular. There are several wonderful places to grab a meal or a drink at Jurmala. Funnily, when we visited (end March) the sea had frozen at Jurmala, so we were huddled on the beach in winter jackets and boots!
Just EAT. All the time!: The food is so amazing in Riga that you will literally be eating your way through the city. A personal favourites:
Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs: A popular bar and restaurant serving authentic Latvian food in a rustic setting reminiscent of the Baltic countryside. It is located in the basement - as you walk in, you will be transported into to a different world! Amazing vibe, amazing drinks and as a bonus, there is live music most days of the week. It’s always hard to find space here, so just squeeze in wherever you can.
Rozengrals: Used to be a medieval wine cellar, all but forgotten until it was turned into a huge medieval-themed restaurant, Rozengrals.It’s a bit too tourist but fun all the same!
96 Dark: Amazing, amazing, amazing hot chocolate (opt for the undiluted version). Choose the milk, dark or white chocolate options, they are all as good. The owner is really friendly too.
Rigensis: Darling bakery in the heart of old town. Everything is great so choose anything (or everything). Don’t forget to admire the vintage, medieval-style decor as you eat.
Queens: A British pub style setting- great for breakfast or evening drinks.
Labientis: A microbrewery located at a slight distance from the city centre in an otherwise unoccupied compound - it was the vibe of the ‘ruin pubs’ of Budapest and is effortlessly super chic! Note that they only serve drinks and no food.
I Love You: A fun local bar to grab some drinks and food. It’s really close to the Swedish Gate, one of the last remaining parts where the original wall of Riga’s Old Town is still standing.
Lots more to do: In addition, there is loads to do. If you love parks, there are numerous beautiful public parks that dot Riga. If you are a fan of panoramic views, don’t miss the views of Riga’s Old Town from atop St. Peters Church. If you love architecture, you should head to Albert Street and Elizabeth Street. Here, you’ll find the fascinating Art Nouveau architecture, which is absolutely worth a visit. Riga has a total of 800 art nouveau buildings, but the majority is around Albert Street. If history interests you, visit the museums to know more about the occupation of Latvia. The best things to do in Riga are ultimately what interest you!
Getting around Riga is super easy: Once you enter Riga, just look out for the nearest Narvesen kiosk (they are literally everywhere) where you can buy a travel pass that covers the duration of your visit. This enables you to hop and off any public transport as you wish and is really worth it. The city is well mapped on Google Maps. Most people speak English and are always happy to help!
Weather: The best weather in Riga is during summer (May to September) - but the city is beautiful in winter as well.
Prices: Latvia uses the Euro. Prices are on par or cheaper than the rest of Europe.
Pics: © Mithila Mehta 2018
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